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Fragmented governance and local service delivery in Malawi

Research reports

Written by Diana Cammack, Leni Wild, Tam O'Neil, Bryn Welham

Research reports

​During a research trip to Malawi in 2012, a senior government official commented that nearly two decades after the government had renewed its commitment to democratic decentralisation, the working of local government was something of a ‘black box’. Ahead of local council elections in May 2014, this study helps government and donors to understand how local government and service delivery work and to assess whether the return of local councils is likely to improve their functioning.

Well-known problems in Malawi’s health, education and water sectors arise largely from institutional and governance problems. The study focuses on the delivery of these services in Blantyre City and Dedza and Rumphi Districts, where local government is characterised by dual administration, unclear mandates and functional fragmentation. The competitive-clientelist political settlement crafted by elites is the underlying cause of local dysfunctions, for the settlement drives policy incoherence and undermines collective action at all levels of government. In turn, these shape the incentives, choices and behaviours of local officials and frontline providers and hamper the collaboration and coordination needed to delivery public goods. The return of local councillors in May 2014 is unlikely to improve governance and services significantly, and may further entrench clientelist politics in local administrations.

Our analysis is deeply pessimistic in many ways. Nevertheless, we suggest that it is possible to reform institutions to improve local governance and services. Given the prevailing conditions, the challenge is to identify the types of institutions that can support public goods provision and, in the longer term, will nudge Malawians towards a more developmental political settlement. In line with this approach, we provide both principles of assistance and concrete suggestions for policy and programming that can help improve the delivery of local services and administration.

Tam O’Neil and Diana Cammack with Edge Kanyongolo, Moir Walita Mkandawire, Tuntufye Mwalyambwire, Bryn Welham and Leni Wild